When old cell phones and computers end up in places like Accra, Ghana, for recycling, the result isn't pretty. Often, the easiest way to get to valuable metals is to melt down plastics over a bonfire, while the person working on it breathes in a toxic brew of smoke, and heavy metals leach into nearby groundwater.
Harvard engineering undergrad Rachel Field was inspired to try to find a better solution, and spent months researching the problem. After a trip to Ghana, she realized her first thoughts of a mobile chemical lab wouldn't make sense. What would work? Something that could be easily locally-built. Her solution was the Bicyclean, a low-cost, pedal-powered tool that can completely grind up electronics while capturing toxic dust in a sealed container.
The machine can be built with local parts, doesn't require any fuel or electricity to run, and keeps the person doing the recycling safely away from contaminants.
Field recently won the Acer Foundation's Incredible Green Contest, and is using the prize to head back to Ghana to test out her second-generation prototype. Until electronics are better designed for repair and disassembly—and until the whole system is better designed for more local recycling in places like the United States or wherever electronics are originally in use—this is an interesting intervention.
Images courtesy of Rachel Field